Electronic Waste Disposal

A worker rummages through electronic waste for the purpose of salvaging metals and other materials for resale in Guiyu, south China’s Guangdong province, Friday 01 July 2005. Electronic waste, illegally imported here from developed countries, is causing severe environmental damage and exposing workers to highly toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Source: EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

Over the last decade, quality of life and owning electronics have become inextricably linked.  As a result, the production and sale of electronic goods has skyrocketed worldwide.  Due to rapid advances in technology, there is a much wider range of products available and new versions of existing goods are being launched constantly.  Therefore, the rate at which electronics are being discarded (and sheer volume of waste) has increased drastically as well.  This electronic waste, or e-waste, is being exported to developing countries where crude ‘recycling’ techniques expose both the workers and the environment to dangerous chemicals.

So, How Much E-Waste is Actually out There?

In the United States, 3 million tons of e-waste (computers, printers, phones, cameras, televisions, refrigerators, etc.) is produced every year.  Globally, e-waste generation is growing by 40 million tons per year (1).  This is equivalent to filling around 15,000 football fields six feet deep with waste!  As unimaginable huge as this figure already is, it is increasing at an alarming rate.

In 2020, it is estimated that in China (which is currently the largest dumping ground), e-waste from computers will have jumped by 200-400% and mobile phones will increase by 700%.  In India, computer waste is predicted to rise by 500% and e-waste from mobile phones will be an astounding 18 times higher than current levels (yes, that is an 1800% jump) (1).  While some state-of-the-art electronic recycling facilities do exist, the majority of this e-waste is being shipped (legally and illegally) to developing countries.

E-Waste in Developing Countries

Due to increased safety rules in Western countries, it is 10 times cheaper to export e-waste to developing countries than it is to locally recycle (3).  Though some e-waste exportation is legal, a large portion is illegal.  Electronics exported under the category of ‘used’ or ‘second-hand’ goods are not subject to any restrictions, and numerous other loopholes, export schemes, and corrupt officials have been discovered (4).  In 2005, inspections of 18 European seaports found that approximately 47% of exported waste was illegal and that 23,000 metric tons of e-waste was illegally shipped from the United Kingdom (5).

Common e-waste destinations include China, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Nigeria, Ghana, and Brazil, just to name a few.  China is by far the most popular dumping ground and receives an estimated 70% of the 20-50 million tons to global e-waste produced yearly (3).  The e-waste industry employs 150,000 people in Guiyu, China, while the scrap yards in Delhi boast 25,000 workers and 20,000 tons of yearly waste (5). These countries create a ‘perfect storm’ for e-waste dumping: cheap and desperate labor with no added cost for health or safety regulations.

Human Health and Environmental Issues

 It is an undeniable fact that e-waste in “backyard” recycling operations poses a major threat to both human health and the environment.  Valuable metals such as gold and copper can be extracted from electronics, but this recovery process is often done in the cheapest and most unsafe way.

Plastics, which contain heavy metals and flame retardants, are burned in open piles and release deadly dioxin and furans.  Cathode ray tubes (CRTs) are broken with hammers to remove copper, a process that also releases toxic phosphor dust.  Circuit boards are literally cooked over open flames or in shallow pans, exposing workers to lead fumes.  Acid baths are used to extract gold from circuit board chips, spewing even more toxic gases into the air (6).  These processes release a wide variety of heavy metals including lead, cadmium, and mercury into the air, soil, and water (5).

Despite the obviously toxic nature of the most common ‘recycling’ techniques, over 90% of e-waste landfills or dumps have no environmental standards (3).  Unbelievably, Nigeria does not have a single legally licensed landfill despite having a population of 115 million and being a popular e-waste dumping ground (2).  The environmental impacts of unregulated ‘recycling’ sites are evident in polluted groundwater, extremely unsafe levels of lead and mercury in nearby rivers, and toxic emissions that contribute to global warming.

Workers at e-waste sites are usually migrants from extremely poor areas and are often children.  They have little to no access to gloves or face masks and are often too desperate for work or uniformed to care about the health risks.  Workers at e-waste sites are prone to skin rashes, cancer, weakening of the immune system, and respiratory, nerve, kidney, and brain damage (3).  In China’s Guiyu region, workers have extremely high levels of toxic fire retardants in their bodies and over 80% of the children already have lead poisoning.

What Can You do to Prevent E-Waste Dumping?

As with any illegal trade, it would be virtually impossible to stop all e-waste exportation and “backyard” recycling operations.  However, you can take measures to ensure that your e-waste is being properly disposed of.  Large consumer electronic stores such as Best Buy and Staples have in-store recycling programs.  You can also find out specific information on nearby certified e-waste recycling programs on your state government’s website.  A list of certified electronics recyclers can also be found through e-Stewards and R2 Solutions.


(1) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/02/100222081911.htm

(2) http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/electronic-waste-developing-world

(3) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/18/world/asia/18iht-waste.1.8374259.html?_r=0

(4) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/science/earth/27waste.html?pagewanted=all

(5) http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/toxics/electronics/the-e-waste-problem/where-does-e-waste-end-up/

(6) http://www.electronicstakeback.com/wp-content/uploads/Q_and_A_on_Exporting_Issues


  1. Dhrusti Patel

    These e-recycling programs need to be vastly expanded and incentivized until e-recycling becomes the norm. Perhaps incentives like those for ink-cartridges, such as giving consumers reward points they can accumulate the more they recycle, could be useful.

    But I find this issue especially interesting because it’s difficult to determine at what point would you regulate or who you would hold accountable. Do you penalize recycling companies in the U.S who export e-waste to Nigeria, for example? And would that discourage U.S recycling programs to accept electronics cause it increases costs? And if so, would waste companies be held accountable for all the electronic waste? Or would it simply increase e-waste in landfills?

  2. Vanessa

    I’ve read some articles in the past about issues with e-waste, but I never knew that it was a problem to such a large extent. It is really distressing to read that young children are often the ones exposed to this waste and as a result their health suffers. I really think that one of the main problems is that there is not enough awareness among our society. Not enough people know the dangers associated with e-waste disposal, and they don’t know where all of it ends up. Also, more businesses need to follow in the steps of Best Buy and Staples, and make it easier for consumers to recycle their e-waste.

  3. Michaela Foster

    E-waste disposal is a growing problem, and it seems that consumers have limited power to ensure the safe disposal of electronics. In our society and throughout the world, the use of electronics will only continue to grow, so making major changes in the way we dispose of these wastes is absolutely necessary. Since consumers are limited in what they can do, it is up to manufacturers to make more degradable products and governments to regulate the disposal and storage of these products and to ensure the safety of their country’s workers.

    Unfortunately, the people handling the waste are victims. They are in the most danger and have little to no choice but to keep handling the waste to survive. Before countries are able to regulate the waste and provide safer working conditions, they must first address the life and health standards that force workers to be in dangerous situations.

  4. ten6@duke.edu

    This is a really interesting problem that I have never really thought about before–probably because I keep all my old cellphones and when they stop working im usually so frustrated they get smashed against something. This sounds like another classic case where we could do something about this problem ourselves but it is easier and cheaper to make it someone else’s problem. I would be interested to see what percentage of wastes in these dumps is from China (for the dumps in China) or Nigeria (for the dumps there). Just like GHGs, we produce a lot and other countries are forced to pay the price.

    I would definitely support the waste management services from these stores like Best Buy, but I think it is important to look into what they actually do with the waste. The e-waste that fills these dumps has to come from somewhere and I am sure many reputable brands have mismanaged their waste.

  5. dlr23@duke.edu

    With the horrible factory fire that just happened in Bangladesh, I was saddened, but not surprised to read your post and learn that many children are working in these e-waste disposal sites. I too had heard a little bit about this problem, but I hadn’t researched it in depth and it’s very interesting to read about the specific substances that are causing a lot of the relevant health problems. I was especially shocked when I read that dioxins and furans were among the problematic chemicals because I recognize them from the “dirty dozen” list of POPs that were supposed to be banned by the 2001 Stockholm Convention.

    I know the EU has a law mandating that electronic producers be responsible for providing safe methods of disposal for electronic wastes (which makes your point about the UK exporting so much illegal e-waste all the more alarming). Still, one hopes that these regulations have at least some effect on the problems they’re targeting. Even if it is only that the passage of the law raises awareness in consumers that they should be disposing of these things in a specific way. If that’s true, I would love to see a push for a similar law in the US.

  6. cmk26@duke.edu

    This is a very compelling topic, and it is outrageous that the United States permits 3 million tons of e-waste to be produced every year. To even think for a second that this number continues to grow is terrifying. When you compare it to 15,000 football fields, it really puts the numbers in perspective and proves how unhealthy and enormous this e-waste is. I was very surprised to learn that China receives so much of this waste, and that they continue to allow the waste to be transported into the country. As you discussed, there are major human and environmental impacts associated with this waste, and it seems unethical that they continue to allow this to happen. I understand that it creates jobs and helps the economy, but they fact that they are not using the proper safety measures is wrong. After learning about this topic, I will definitely think about where I am buying my electronics from, thanks to your recommendations. I really enjoyed reading about this topic!

  7. Kerri Devine

    As a future electrical engineer and huge electronics consumer, I feel a direct responsibility for the burgeoning levels of e-waste in this country. While I think it’s crucial for e-recycling programs to see growth and support from developed nations, I think it’s even more important for developers to research more environmentally sustainable components. Life-cycle analyses need to take center-stage in the sustainability reports coming from major manufacturers, and more pressure needs to be placed on the manufacturers to make responsible decisions. Consumers need to be made more aware of the life-cycle of their products and educated in ways to reduce their own impact.
    What I find to be incredibly frustrating about most developed countries is our insatiable need for the newest and greatest inventions. People only tend to purchase new cells phones every 2 years due to the fact that major cellular service providers decided to make the average plan 2 years long. The phones themselves are actually quite capable of lasting anywhere from 5-10 years, yet most of us discard our “old” phones as soon as our 2 year upgrades are available. I have no idea how we might rectify this disjoint process, especially since we are now so conditioned to new phones every 2 years, but as you mention, there is plenty of room for improvement. We take our prized electronic devices for granted, and shame on us.

  8. Niara Wright

    The danger and difficulty with this is that electronics are changing and adapting at alarming rates. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. At this time in history the idea of reducing our use of electronics is literally a joke, something to be left to extremists, the purest of the pure naturalists and spiritualists. I did not realize that electronic waste was such a problem, because I personally would never consider simply throwing a phone away. Old or lost phones have to go somewhere, though. Electronics are difficult to recycle because they are composed of so many different materials in a number of different phases. Consider the toxic liquid in the battery or the silicon chip with tiny bits of sodder embedded in it. For Chinese citizens to sift through electronic waste and attempt to salvage any materials is tedious and dangerous. I don’t think that the United States should be dumping our waste in another country. I understand that it is not by force but we need to stop claiming ignorance because we know the implications of having such large amounts of waste. That is why we are trying to get rid of it in the first place! We are exploiting people, man of whom are in no position to find another job. I walk past the ‘battery bin’ in Hudson on my way to class everyday so I know that there are areas available to dispose of ewaste. We need more exposure of the issue and implementation of the rules that are already in place.

  9. Jacob Crabtree

    It’s truly amazing how interconnected our world has become. The average American who throws away an old cell phone has no idea that they are supporting, albeit indirectly, the exploitation of sensitive populations in China. I’m interested to see how this issue will evolve as time goes on. The elements that are being recovered exist in finite quantities on the Earth, so this issue is not going to be going away. If anything, the pressure to recover as much of the elements via recycling will increase as demand for electronics increase. Thus, I could see two outcome, one good and one bad. The good option is that technology is required for perfect extraction and these jobs will shift to higher skilled positions by default, alleviating some of the environmental impacts. Alternatively, current practices will persist at a larger scale, worsening the environmental and public health impacts. Which one actually occurs remains to be seen.

  10. jd155@duke.edu

    In a previous class for the Energy and Environment Certificate, I saw a student team with an end of semester project to extract copper from a landfill with electronics in Arizona, if I recall correctly. Their business plan turned out to be very profitable and had enough copper extracted to make an impact on the landfill. I wonder why businesses like the one proposed haven’t been pursued for electronics recovery on a large scale. If there are people who are combing through the landfills to make some sort of living, isn’t there some sort of opportunity for a business to recover that? Jacob makes a good point too, that minerals are limited and that soon will need to be actively recycled in order to keep up with demand.

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